Gate Theatre, London W11
Opened 20 September, 1996

Bearing no relation to the 1975 cult horror movie of the same name about arsonist cockroaches from Hell, Tracy Letts's second play touches at times upon each and every meaning of the word "bug". When quiet, somehow different Peter turns up in Agnes's Oklahoma motel room and insinuates his way into her life, he seems to bring with him an infestation of aphids. Peter is also not a little paranoid about surveillance, insisting on drawn curtains, locked doors and ultimately sheets of tinfoil around the room to jam any "transmissions". The nasty little mites appear at their most toothsome when one or other of the central couple is placed under severe stress when they are bugged, in other words, they are comprehensively bugged.

Letts author of last year's Edinburgh and London success Killer Joe, whose Hired Gun company from Chicago also perform this play has cooked up a broth of paranoia both spontaneous and cocaine-induced, no-hope white-trashery, domestic violence, the horrors of co-dependence and shared delusions, and liberal doses of Psycho: Peter gives off a Norman Batesish odour from the start, the action is confined to a motel, and a psychiatrist turns up later to "explain things" in a uniquely caustic, self-interested manner.

The mood of the play is similarly lumpy, an uneasy mixture of cynical humour and grim psychological degeneration. In early scenes, a sense of unease bleeds disquietingly through Peter and Agnes's initial conversations; by the latter stages, this edge has disappeared. One can admire Letts's imagination in equipping Peter with almost the definitive conspiracy theory (only the Trilateral Commission is missing), but even when Agnes picks up the can of worms and runs with it, adding further complexities to the hypothesis, the primary sense of the spectator is one of uncomprehending otherness. The snorted lines and fly-papers, wife-beating and self-mutilation, right through to the inexorable, despairing conclusion, constitute a spectacle rather than an experience; we watch but feel little.

Shannon Cochran and Michael Shannon mesh well together as the protagonists, and director Wilson Milam handles their linking up well: they drift together, mostly between their spoken lines, for reasons which neither can fathom. As the script strays further from the path of mental equilibrium, however, it becomes progressively more difficult for either director or performers to retain a handle on matters. A disturbing curio such as this will not provide the consolidation that some critics, and perhaps Letts himself, may have hoped for.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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